‘The Fosters’ Review: Drama Is the Name of the Game In ‘Mixed Messages’
Recap and review of The Fosters – Season 3 Episode 12 – Mixed Messages:
Last week, I worried that the nascent cancer storyline with Stef (Teri Polo) would dwarf every other plotline on the show, and become the sole focus of The Fosters, to the detriment of what is, ostensibly, an ensemble show. “Mixed Messages” doesn’t try to pretend that the Stef cancer story isn’t going to be a huge deal going forward, but I thought the episode did a great job in assuring us that focusing on Stef’s cancer doesn’t mean we won’t be getting any of the other types of storylines we’ve enjoyed, whether romantic (Callie, Brandon), familial (Mike’s search for AJ) or even petty (such as the feud between Mariana and Lexi). The Fosters is still as well-rounded as ever, and that’s a major relief.
Of course, it bears repeating that much of this week’s drama does come from the major choice Stef has to make regarding her treatment. She’s at the point where she has several options, from chemo to a mastectomy to doing nothing at all. Lena (Sherri Saum) does research into the illness Stef has, and discovers that many sufferers overreact to their diagnosis and go through unnecessary procedures when they don’t really have to. It’s kind of stunning that the show chose to make Lena the voice of the “Just do nothing” argument, but she does frame her argument in a way that sort of makes sense, in context. She isn’t necessarily saying to do nothing at all, she’s mostly just saying not to worry about the illness until there’s actually something to worry about, considering that Stef’s cancer is at “stage zero”: right now, it could become cancer, or it could just be nothing. Lena suggests Stef continue with regular checkups and mammograms, and decide on treatment if/when it becomes necessary. However, Stef isn’t just facing a campaign from one family member, as her mother (Annie Potts) is also trying to get Stef to go along with her ideas. This involves using the sort of reverse psychology Stef’s mother used on her when she was a child, a tactic that Stef really doesn’t appreciate right now. And yet, it all appears to stem from personal experience on the part of Stef’s mother. We learned that she had ovarian cancer, and was quick to undergo treatment to nip that problem in the bud altogether. But there also seems to be a layer of guilt motivating what Stef’s mother is trying to do. Sure enough, Stef discovers that she has a family history of cancer that makes her susceptible to this illness, which in turn would explain why her mother appears to feel such a sense of guilt over all this. Perhaps she feels it’s her own genes that caused her daughter to suffer in this way. I’m not sure. But what I do know is that the storyline itself has been handled very maturely so far. I found it interesting that Stef and Lena opt not to tell the kids yet, with only Mike (Danny Nucci) discovering the truth so far. Stef and Lena have a lot on their plate, and I would imagine there’s a lot more to come before Stef’s secret gets out. In fact, it feels like Stef and Lena are still at odds in their marriage, despite the need for a united front more than ever. Stef worries that if she gets a mastectomy, Lena won’t find her attractive anymore, which is an absolutely heartbreaking little scene, even after Lena assures Stef that that would never be the case. That Stef felt the need to ask that question at all tells us just how troubled this marriage still is, because it suggests that Stef doesn’t see their love as unconditional. Or, at the very least, that she’s worried that the sexual aspect of their marriage is in jeopardy due to Lena potentially no longer finding her beautiful. It’s heavier than anything else we got this week, and I think it bodes well for the stories to come. If nothing else, I’m hoping this is a story that is addressed tactfully, considering just how many people cancer has affected and continues to affect. This has the potential to be one of the more emotionally compelling storylines the show has ever done, and I’m really hoping The Fosters sticks the landing.
But Lena and Stef aren’t the only ones with relationship troubles this week, as Callie (Maia Mitchell) is still concerned over the mystery message she got last week from a stranger who claims to know about her hookup with Brandon (David Lambert). This type of storyline was always going to be complicated, given the muddled nature of Callie and Brandon’s relationship. They live together, see each other constantly, are basically best friends, but also brother and sister, in the eyes of the law. Sure, they weren’t siblings when they slept together, but I’m not sure any of that matters in the grand scheme of things. What they did looms large over everything they’ve done since, and it finally came to a head here. In short, Brandon infers that Callie is holding him back, and this prompts Callie to snap back at him later in the episode when he makes an offhand remark about her Fost-and-Found photoshoot. Because of the volatile nature of their relationship, they have no real choice but to internalize their pain, since they can’t exactly tell anyone about what they did. Sure, Callie has Daphne (Daffany Clark), but I’m not sure Callie even knows how to truly express the gravity of what happened between she and Brandon. And Brandon…well, he doesn’t even have a Daphne he could potentially tell. All he’s got is a cute surfing instructor, with whom he goes on a pseudo-date. In talking about their past relationships, Brandon is forced to speak in riddles in order to avoid revealing the true nature of his and Callie’s relationship, and why he can’t ever be with her. It’s poignant, in a lot of ways, as Brandon is a character prone to internalizing his problems, whether it’s because he doesn’t think anyone will listen, or because he doesn’t think he can tell anyone the truth without consequences (such as when he slept with Dani, his father’s ex-girlfriend). Brandon is sort of like Atlas, bearing the world up on his shoulders because he doesn’t think anyone else can carry the weight. In a way, it’s selfish, and in others, it’s noble. And that kind of sums up Brandon as a character. We find out that his only method for dealing with his heartache is by channeling it all into a rock opera, which brings Mat (Jordan Rodrigues) back into the fold. It’s a surprising direction for the character to take, but I can’t say I minded since, hey, we got to hear David Lambert sing again! For her part, Callie is struggling to get over Brandon by finding out what happened to AJ. Granted, she doesn’t know the true reason why Stef and Mike want to find him, and this could result in some great drama down the line, as Callie’s sympathies are likely to be divided. Sure, she doesn’t care about Ty, and would likely want to see him arrested if she learned he nearly got her brother and sister killed. But I think she’d also feel conflicted over not wanting to see AJ get hurt, as he clearly would be if his brother were to be arrested. Callie knows better than anyone that sometimes you need to cut a toxic family member out of your life; hell, she’s BEEN that family member, extricating herself from Jude’s life back in Season 1 when she thought he’d be better off without her. There’s a thin line, however, between taking yourself out of the equation, and cutting someone else loose. Basically, I feel like this is one situation with no clear solution for AJ, which should make it difficult for Callie to really be of any help to him other than as a shoulder to cry on. And hey, maybe that’s where her value lies in this situation.
The rest of the episode is kind of perfunctory, but I think we need these sorts of lightweight storylines to balance things out. Jesus (Noah Centineo) discovers he’s a bit of an adrenaline junkie after a friend peer-pressures him into taking out a 700 horsepower Mustang GT. Jesus damn near gets himself and his friend killed when he nearly crashes into a truck while going over 100 mph, which is further evidence of Jesus’s notoriously horrible impulse control. On the one hand, he’s just a kid, and prone to peer pressure (as evidenced by his having taken steroids while at the private school, which he admitted to last week); on the other hand, a guy who was nearly killed in a car accident a few months back really ought to know better than to pull this kind of crap. In short, Jesus hasn’t really matured very much at all, and the immaturity present in his plotline is mirrored, somewhat, in the story of his sister. Mariana (Cierra Ramirez) essentially goes to war with Lexi (Bianca A. Santos) over the student body presidential race (well-timed with the Iowa caucuses, by the way), and their “debate” inevitably devolves into a shouting match between the two former best friends. But there’s a little more depth to this storyline than there was with Jesus’s, as we learn that Lexi’s reasons for betraying Mariana stem from jealousy. As Lexi explains, she’s been gone for a year and returned to find everything she’d once known had changed. Looking at this all from Lexi’s perspective shows just how much Mariana has grown in a relatively short time: she’s more confident, less afraid to show off her intelligence, and more ambitious (between the dance team and the student body presidential campaign). She’s also popular independent of any associations she has with a cool girl like Lexi. Basically, Lexi came back to find that her best friend no longer needed her; worse, actually, as she found that her friend now outranked her in every metric that mattered at Anchor Beach High. Lexi admitting to her jealousy is a breakthrough moment for the character that allows her to be preserved as a best friend for Mariana rather than as an antagonist around which to base Mariana’s story this season. Ultimately, I think it was the right choice to keep these two friends by having them make up. Of course, it leaves the question of what Mariana will be doing for the rest of this half season. But here’s hoping it has as much dramatic weight as her stories last year.
All told, I thought “Mixed Messages” was a strong episode. While it wasn’t as great as last week’s premiere, I thought it did a good job of keeping that ensemble vibe strong, allowing Stef and Lena’s story to thrive, but without having it be to the detriment of other stories on the show. The Fosters likely has a long road ahead before they’re clear of the cancer plot, and I’m hoping they can manage to keep this from feeling entirely like the Stef and Lena Show. Polo and Saum are both great actresses, but I love seeing the entire cast get a chance to shine, in ways both big and small. This episode struck a great balance, in that respect.
But what did you think of The Fosters, “Mixed Messages”? Sound off in the comments!
And for more on The Fosters, read our review of last week’s emotional winter premiere!